Disinformation, social networks and intercommunity conflict prevention in the Sahel & West Africa

Timbuktu Institute 

In the Sahel, the current political and security situation is marked by the high-speed circulation of fake news and unverified information distilled on social networks and shared, above all, by hyper-connected young people. While the pernicious effects of the democratization of information dissemination and access in the digital age have yet to be tamed, other parameters no less problematic have been added to the equation. These include: the growing influence of influencers on public opinion, the race for scoops, sensationalism and buzz, the instrumentalization of inter-community or identity-based conflicts in certain countries in transition, etc.

Paradoxically, the democratization of access to knowledge and information in profusion has not necessarily created an environment conducive to healthy public debate and exchange outside social platforms and networks, which expose people to the risks of misinformation, among other things. There is also the circulation of various theories and preconceived ideas that run counter to the spirit of citizenship, further undermining the achievements of democratic debate and the values that underpin social cohesion. These ideas circulate more frequently in crisis or post-conflict contexts, even of low intensity, to take advantage of latent tension despite reconciliation and peace-building efforts.

Disinformation, A bedrock of political instability?

In a context of insecurity and political instability, punctuated by transitions of uncertain evolution and outcome, the phenomenon of disinformation takes many forms, and hides behind well-targeted communication campaigns over which states have little monopoly or even control. The countries of the Sahel, in addition to the absence of adequate normative or regulatory frameworks, are thus struggling to cope with this flow of information and its manipulation by various actors; all this in a context of uncertainty, internal political tensions, security threats and escalations on a Sahelian diplomatic stage that has become the new “playground” and influence of both traditional and emerging powers.

At the same time, social networks are becoming the main source of information, and the phenomenon of disinformation has become recurrent and even accentuated in a context of manipulation of information for various purposes, strategies of foreign influence, and the promotion of extremist and violent narratives online. While the fight against terrorism is mobilizing the energies of States and their partners, public opinion is being led to move in an increasingly sovereignist atmosphere.

An Observatory of Social Networks in the Sahel and West Africa at work

This is the background to the idea of the Timbuktu Institute’s Observatoire des Réseaux Sociaux (Social Network Observatory), in partnership with platforms such as Meta, concerned about the need to act in the face of disinformation and its damaging effects on living together and regional stability. The main objective of this tool is to reflect and act effectively on the “Stakes of Disinformation and Challenges to Social Cohesion and Democracy in the Sahel”.

The Observatory’s vocation is to document these phenomena through an in-depth study of the vectors of disinformation and the analysis of content and narratives at work on social networks such as Facebook, which call into question the stability of African countries.

With this in mind, a regional webinar was organized on January 18, 2024, on the theme of “Social networks and intercommunity conflict prevention in the Sahel”. This interactive framework for exchange and discussion provided an opportunity to deepen reflection on a range of issues, including: content likely to stir up community conflict; concrete experiences of conflict resolution using social networks; and the possibilities for thinking about the regulation of social networks.

Moderated by Dr. Bakary Sambe, Regional Director of the Timbuktu Institute, the webinar was led by : Cendrine Nama (activist, Executive Director of CORTEX – Burkina Faso), Ibrahima Harane Diallo (Journalist-politologist – Associate at the Timbuktu Institute -Mali), Pr Abdourahamane Dicko (Sociologist at the University of Zinder in Niger) and Nodjiwameen Doumdanem (Multimedia Journalist, jurist – Chad). This webinar was the first in a series of debates designed to address different aspects of misinformation.

Urgent need to act against misinformation and its harmful effects

Speakers agreed on the urgent need to act in the face of a worrying proliferation not only of fake news, but also of hate speech on social networks in the various countries of the Sahel. This is certainly not reassuring in the current context, where the political situation in the Sahel is unstable and uncertain. According to Pr Abdourahmane Dicko, “social networks contribute to the fragmentation of national unity, by reinforcing the political positioning of citizens on ethnolinguistic grounds”. To avoid these dangerous pitfalls, Burkinabe activist Cendrine Nama, Executive Director of CORTEX, proposes adopting a zero-tolerance approach, with more rigorous regulation, particularly with regard to calls for hatred, segregation and stigmatization: “Any word of segregation, exclusion and stigmatization cannot go under the radar of freedom of expression. We have to be uncompromising, even in so-called humorous comments, because that’s where discrimination often starts”, she advocates.

Nevertheless, caution must be exercised insofar as “social networks are double-edged, and the main challenge remains to reconcile the regulation of speech and freedom of expression”, warns Chadian journalist Nodjiwameen Doumdanem. For all these reasons, conflict prevention must be fundamentally based on “promoting a culture of peace”, suggests Ibrahima Harane Diallo, emphasizing the principle of prevention.

Disinformation and the dangers of radicalized political discourse

For Dr. Bakary Sambe, who facilitated the debate for which over 500 actors from civil society, NGOs and decision-makers had registered, “we are in a rather particular context, with its paradoxes to be taken into account, between the freedom to inform and the responsibility to safeguard peace and social cohesion”. In his opinion, large-scale actions are needed, particularly among young people. “Young people are increasingly informed and interested in public debate, but sometimes they don’t really have a place in it, and a self-isolation phenomenon is developing that locks this majority category of the population away from the public expression of ideas and opinions”, notes Bakary Sambe.

The Regional Director of the Timbuktu Institute also dwelt on the community mobilization experiments carried out with young people in Togo and Benin as part of the USAID-OTI-supported Littoral Regional Initiative (PRAPC), to explain that “empowering youth and strengthening their capacities could yield encouraging results”.

But beyond the current signals of the amplification of inter-community conflicts via social networks, Bakary Sambe called for real reflection on the phenomena of radicalization of political discourse in certain countries, particularly on social networks. As he reminds us, by alerting us to this worrying phenomenon, “a major gap is opening up between this young, hyper-connected, information-hungry public and the institutional discourse of governments and political leaders, which fails to take account of their specific characteristics and aspirations”.

Source : Timbuktu Institute

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